Fully booked: January titles to take you to faraway places

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Walking miles in others’ shoes is one of the joys of literature. The books our reviewers liked best this month immerse readers in  unexpected situations, locations, and historical periods. 

Many of our choices for fiction center on the experiences of Black people, immigrants, and Indigenous people, demonstrating a welcome, though still gradual, diversification within the publishing industry. 

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month convey courage in the midst of profound change, compassion for family struggles, and the excitement (and confusion) of overlapping cultures.

The novels include the story of a teenage poet from China as he navigates his new turf in San Francisco, a murder mystery set in New Zealand featuring a Maori police detective, and the tale of a 19th-century Lutheran clergyman who clashes with the Indigenous herding community he is trying to convert.  

Among the nonfiction titles is a lively retelling of the story of an enslaved husband and wife in the antebellum South who concoct an elaborate and risky escape plan. And a biography of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black U.S. congresswoman, paints an indelible portrait of the path-breaking politician.  

1. The Chinese Groove, by Kathryn Ma

It’s 2015, and 18-year-old budding poet Xue Li – call him Shelley – has bid China farewell for a new life in fog-shrouded San Francisco at the home of his “rich uncle.” Reality quickly reveals an extended family under financial and emotional strain, plus a city far different from his expectations.

Shelley narrates his newcomer experience with optimism, generosity, and humor. Kathryn Ma’s deftly written novel soars.

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month convey courage in the midst of profound change, compassion for family struggles, and the excitement (and confusion) of overlapping cultures.

2. In the Upper Country, by Kai Thomas

In 1859 in Dunmore, Alberta – a stop on the Underground Railroad – a young Black journalist meets with an older woman in jail for killing a white slave catcher. Tales of brutality, escape, survival, and grit are volleyed in their story-for-a-story pact. Kai Thomas’ first novel, lyrical and layered, illumines the complex ties among Indigenous, Black, and white individuals of the era.

3. The End of Drum-Time, by Hanna Pylväinen

When a charismatic Lutheran minister is sent to northern Scandinavia to convert the Indigenous population, both sides must deal with the consequences, especially when a tribal leader experiences a religious awakening. Set in the mid-19th century, Hanna Pylväinen’s tale offers not only exquisite prose and insightful observations, but also fresh perspectives on family bonds, cultural traditions, and religious colonialism.

4. Small World, by Laura Zigman

Great wit and wisdom permeate Laura Zigman’s quirky story of two newly divorced sisters who, looking for a fresh start, become roommates. The siblings are forced to confront fallout from their childhood, when the family struggled to care for a sister with severe disabilities, who died at age 10. Balancing grief with humor, Zigman throws in the sisters’ ongoing frustration with unusually noisy neighbors, who may be running an illegal yoga studio. A delight. 

5. Independence, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 

A Hindu family is thrown into chaos during the 1947 Partition of India. Told through the lives of three sisters, the novel is a captivating tale of family, love, and friendship during heartbreaking times, making it ultimately a story of resilience and courage.

6. Better the Blood, by Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett’s crime fiction debut explores themes of colonization and Indigenous culture by way of New Zealand. A serial killer looking to avenge the 160-year-old murder of a Maori chief is pursued by police detective Hana Westerman, whose Maori ancestry makes the case personal. 

7. Master Slave Husband Wife, by Ilyon Woo

In 1848, married couple William and Ellen Craft – both enslaved in Georgia – launch a daring escape: Light-skinned Ellen, disguised as a wealthy white gentleman, travels north accompanied by William, an enslaved servant. Their remarkable journey rivets, as does their subsequent work as lecture-circuit abolitionists who “demanded that others not look down at them, but eye to eye.” 

8. Preparing for War, by Bradley Onishi

A religion scholar and former evangelical youth minister looks at evangelical Christianity in the United States and the movement’s increasing involvement with political extremism. The author argues that the Jan. 6 insurrection was not an aberration but the logical outcome of the melding of politics and white Christian nationalism. 

9. Shirley Chisholm, by Anastasia C. Curwood

Shirley Chisholm became the first Black congresswoman in 1968 and sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination four years later. Anastasia C. Curwood’s stirring biography of the trailblazing politician presents her as a “brilliant strategist, inventive intellectual, and flawed human.”

10. Three Roads Back, by Robert D. Richardson

Robert D. Richardson, who died in 2020, was an acclaimed biographer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. In this slim but profoundly affecting volume, he argues that their experiences with grief inspired their enduring contributions to intellectual history – and can serve as a guide for modern-day readers coping with loss as well.

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